Newcastle United will begin their preseason campaign on Tuesday at Oldham Athletic as the two clubs meet for the first time in their newfound unofficial partnership. Oldham's Boundary Park was recently rebranded with the Sports Direct name, and while Mike Ashley does not (and cannot) have any ownership stake in the club, there's a general sentiment among outsiders that Newcastle and Oldham will be seeing more of each other in the coming years. That may very well manifest itself in player loans as early as this season, but for now, there's a friendly match to consider.
The first match of the preseason will tell us almost nothing in terms of Alan Pardew's preferred XI, especially since there are no fewer than 8 friendlies to be played over the next month. However, we can get a sense of what Pardew's thinking in regard to several positions and players that are question marks ahead of the 2014-15 campaign. Here are just a few questions I'd like to get a better feel about this Tuesday:
What's going to happen at right back?
Newcastle are currently exploring external options to replace Mathieu Debuchy, whose move to Arsenal is expected to be officially announced next week. Currently, however, they're busy trying to undercut the price on a number of different players, with the end result being that none of them are close to signing. As it stands, there are no true right backs at Newcastle's Benton-based training ground. Many fans continue to beat the "Santon is right-footed and should play on that side of the formation" drum, but he's said repeatedly that he's not comfortable there, and the few times he's played there has confirmed that idea. Still, there's a chance that he might be the best option.
Ryan Taylor is returning from a torn ACL that has kept him out of action for the better part of two years, and he could be the answer, albeit a rather temporary one, given his age and perhaps his ability. Taylor has shown a great deal of versatility over his career, but the last time we saw him play one position consistently, he was a defensive liability at left back, even with the gritty Jonas Gutierrez providing cover from midfield. Could his time away from football provide a much-needed spring in his step? I'd really love to see him play at fullback at some point in this preseason. It would be a shame if he was slotted in as a midfielder (the NUFCTV feature about his return listed him as such) and never given a chance.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has played right back for Alan Pardew before, and it would be kind to describe his performance there as mixed. He's not a right back, and should be competing for a spot in a central position. However, given his status as one of the higher-paid players on the team (no, really), it's not hard to envision a scenario where Pardew feels pressure from on high to get him on the pitch, no matter what. If Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini are the preferred pairing in the middle, and there's no reason to suspect that they won't continue to be, we may see MYM at fullback, for better or for worse.
If Santon moving to the right side is a possibility, we should probably consider that moving one of the natural left backs is also on the table. Massadio Haidara should be the choice on the left over Paul Dummett, in my opinion, but it seems likely that Pardew doesn't see things that way. If Dummett is going to take up a spot on the back line, I'd like to see Haidara get a chance to prove himself elsewhere. If he doesn't get that chance, he needs to go on loan, as he's too young and talented to waste away on the bench. I'm not necessarily advocating for Massadio at right back, but it wouldn't be the worst thing if he got some time there in one of the early preseason fixtures.
Will a striker emerge as a legitimate option?
It seems based on the lack of any reports to the contrary that Papiss Cisse is still out with the fractured patella he sustained in April, which may be a blessing in disguise. Newcastle fans are almost universal in agreement that the club needs to purchase another striker, but even that won't be enough. We've seen what happens when one man is relied upon to score goals. There absolutely must be at least one player who is in camp this very moment that emerges as a legitimate threat to score every time he puts the shirt on.
Who will have a monster preseason and force Pardew to consider him on August 16? Adam Armstrong seems poised to take the next step, but can he start now? Will Adam Campbell reclaim his prospect status? Is it time for Sammy Ameobi to step out of his brother's shadow and perhaps live up to his billing? Could Ayoze Perez be ready far earlier that expected? Would Yoan Gouffran benefit from a true two-striker formation? Could one of the guys we've given up on (Haris Vuckic and Mehdi Abeid, for starters) possibly find new life in a slightly different role?
The absence of Cisse and the lack of new blood gives us opportunity to answer these questions over the next 8 matches. It will be interesting to see who Pardew selects to make a first impression on Tuesday. The selections he makes on that day will not likely give us a clear indication of what to expect in a month's time, but could tell us which way he's leaning, assuming Papiss isn't ready. By the way, we should be prepared for that possibility.
How will the new guys fit?
Remy Cabella won't be available for this match, and in truth, he hasn't been photographed holding up a shirt just yet. So let's focus on the guys who have already been spotted in training: Ayoze Perez, Jack Colback, and Siem De Jong. The former isn't expected to compete for the first team (but see above), while the latter two are. The smart money says that Pardew will want to throw them into action right away, but how will they be deployed? The left-footed Colback could find himself taking minutes away from the likes of Gouffran, the younger Ameobi, and apparently-out-of-favor Sylvain Marveaux. If played, De Jong will no doubt be allowed to roam free behind the striker. It will be interesting to watch him and see who he's developed chemistry with already.
Which younger players are ready to step up to consistent first team selection?
I've mentioned several fringe players already, but here's one more: Gael Bigirimana. He's been Newcastle's next big thing for a couple of years now, and it might be time for the future tense to become the present. There's little to no chance that Cheik Tiote, whose Ivory Coast team was eliminated in the group stage in Brazil, will play in this first preseason tilt. Bigirimana is the obvious choice to play in his place. If he can turn Pardew into a believer, perhaps Gael will be the go-to replacement for whenever Tiote is injured or suspended, which is a lock to be at least 6-8 games over the course of the season.
Predicting selection for an early preseason match is madness. For all we know, Pardew won't even show up, and it will be Peter Beardsley and a bunch of guys we're thinking of loaning out to Oldham. The start of the Premier League season is just over a month away, though, and there are enough questions surrounding the team that must be answered before then to justify fielding a semi-competitive lineup. At the very least, those two key positions (striker and right back) are well worth keeping an eye on. What are you looking for in the Oldham match?